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Posted by on Oct 4, 2014 | 4 comments

Did Everything Go Wrong When the Church Came to Power?

Did Everything Go Wrong When the Church Came to Power?

“You will have power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” – Acts 1:8

In a short space of time, the early Christians went from being a relational, organic, life-filled community to a powerful and corrupt institutional structure which would do anything to achieve its ends; and it all happened because of Constantine’s conversion, so the story goes. But are we learning the right lessons from that period? In this post I want to look at some implications of distancing ourselves too quickly from Christendom and the Christian Empire.

Christ as a Roman Centurion

The story runs something like this: The early church was pure, persecuted, and uncompromised, a tight-knit group of devoted Christians who would sacrifice anything for their faith. Then, in AD 313, Emperor Constantine became Christian and the persecution ended. Constantine gave the church huge amounts of money and political influence. Christianity became fashionable and advantageous; millions converted, but for all the wrong reasons. The church rapidly grew drunk on her new-found authority and became corrupt. Ever since that time, institutional Christianity has used political power and even military force to ram a twisted version of the gospel down people’s throats, silencing anyone who disagrees. In short, Constantine was the worst thing that has ever happened to the gospel.

I’ve heard versions of this story several times recently, and also grew up believing it.[1] But I’ve been compelled to question it on two fronts.

First, the historical details give a different picture. The church had been growing steadily at a rate of roughly 40% per decade since her inception.[2] She had been slowly infiltrating the places of power for a long time. Constantine’s mother, the consort of Constantius I, was Christian, as was the daughter of Galerius, only two Emperors before Constantine. Constantine’s conversion was less a chance event that changed everything and more the final domino in an age-long process, the result of the early Church’s success in evangelism.

Second, what is the moral of this story? Should we be sad when our evangelism strategies succeed in converting politicians? Should Christians never seek power on the basis that power always corrupts? If we take that principle to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t stop with Christians staying out of politics. Any kind of power is suspect, because it will always be possible to use that power to one’s own advantage in the name of the gospel. Alternatively one could argue that although Constantine and the early Church got everything wrong, if we were given political influence we would get it right this time. But how do we know that? Because we’re less subject to the temptations of power? Because we’re “real” Christians (who believe the Bible / listen to the Holy Spirit / follow Christ “properly”) and they weren’t? I don’t buy it.[3]

Imagine the following scenario: your local church is approached by the Government because the Government believes that you could have some valuable input into the legal and educational system of the country. The schools and universities are put into your hands – you can change anything you want about them, give funding to any research subject, teach every child whatever you think best, and even fire Richard Dawkins from Oxford University if you choose. The nation’s laws are equally yours to do with as you will: you can define what legally counts as marriage, decide how much money to give the military, and call the shots on immigration policy.

If you think the early Christians shouldn’t have been glad when Constantine converted, then the only consistent response to the above scenario is to reject the Government’s offer in its entirety. Any use of political influence can only lead to corruption, as we suppress voices and lifestyles different from ours, even those that claim to be Christian.

Most evangelicals I know are hoping and praying that those around them will be saved and believe the gospel. But what if all our evangelistic efforts were successful beyond our wildest dreams, and revival truly broke out in our land? Would we be ready for the challenges and responsibilities that would bring? Have we as a church the maturity and wisdom to rule wisely, if it were given to us to rule?

I believe the only way to learn from the mistakes of the past is to own them as if they were ours, to recognise our own temptations and sinful attitudes therein. What happened when Constantine converted is precisely what so many Christians are striving for today. The fourth century may help us understand what new problems and temptations we would face if we were successful.

[1] An accessible version of this story is found in Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity, Rev Upd edition (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2012).

[2] Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark documents the evidence for this in his book, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries ([San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

[3] Third, a lot of good things came to pass which are often forgotten about in the rush to lay blame and point the finger.


Further Reading

Leithart, Peter. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010.

Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. [San Francisco, Calif.]: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

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Barney is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. A philosophical theologian who believes in making theology relevant to the public sphere, he has a less academic blog at Everyday Theology, in which he attempts to render theological insights in an accessible way.